Synopses & Reviews
Teddy Hastings is more of a doer than a thinker, a man who measures his life by what he has built: a successful career as a middle school principal, a solid marriage, two lovely if distant daughters. But once he hits fifty, in the shadow of his younger brother's death and a health scare of his own, Teddy feels the gravitational pull of his mortality and realizes he is no longer quite so in the middle, no longer building a life but maintaining one. He yearns for delivery and transcendence, for a hint of the sublime, and is determined to find it. What he gets instead is the intrusion of the irrational in his affairs.
Oren Pierce, a perpetual grad student who has made a mark, or left a smudge anyway all over the place, has had more than enough transcendence in his life. Neither the extraordinary existence for which he assumed he was destined nor the woman with whom he assumed he would share it has materialized. In their absence he flounders in the possible, wondering what it will take to anchor himself to the supremely ordinary existence he both longs for and abhors.
The intersecting and diverging paths of these two men take them from the grids of New York City to the domesticated gardens of New England to the wildest, most unstructured landscapes of all -- the bedroom, the classroom, the darkroom, and the far reaches of East Africa, where Teddy at last finds something akin to what he seeks.
Amateur Barbarians showcases a writer at the peak of his powers, laying bare the evasions and unrealities of the familiar, the odd recognition with which we view the remote, plumbing the depths of the unlived life with uncanny wit and perception, revealing yet again why Robert Cohen was touted by The New York Times Book Review as the heir to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
" How can a book about life's most serious questions contain so many big laughs? Only a writer of Cohen's wit and intelligence could have pulled it off. He writes with the acuity of a psychoanalyst and the compassion of a saint. His superb prose style is as good as it gets." -- Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind
"If there's one thing that Robert Cohen's protagonists are good at, it's running in place. His characters trail around a long list of aggrievements, especially when it comes to themselves, and are continually affecting in the comic resourcefulness of their dyspepsia and pessimism. What's most moving about them, though, is the extent to which, as they try to figure out just how this maturity business operates, they perform the act of faith of behaving like better people in the hope that at some point that behavior might become the truth. Amateur Barbarians is hilarious and wise and may be his best work yet." -- Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Underst and, Anyway
"Robert Cohen's satirical eye is sharper than ever -- who else could have captured so perfectly the struggles of middle age? A very funny and very smart novel." -- Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe and Ship Fever
From award-winning author Cohen comes a bold, hilarious work about mid-life panic and the intersecting lives of two men on either side of their 40s.
Acclaimed, award-winning novelist Robert Cohen delivers a bold, provocative exploration of the panic of midlife, follow- ing two men plateaued on either side of their forties and the unexpected consequences of changing course.
Teddy Hastings is a New England middle school principal desperate for transcendence. Unmoored by his brother’s death and a health scare of his own, he tries to broaden his ordinary life and winds up unemployed and on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, Oren Pierce, a per- petual grad student from New York, abandons, somewhat to his own surprise, his search for the extraordinary and begins settling into the humble existence that Teddy seeks to escape. What comforts Oren alarms Teddy, and their paths overlap as Teddy’s quest for the unknown and unfamiliar experience takes him on a rash trip to Africa, leaving Oren to assume the trappings of his life, including Teddy’s wife Gail.
Amateur Barbarians showcases a writer at the peak of his powers, tracing domestic ambivalence, the comic perils of introspection and desire, and the terror of an unlived life with Cohen’s signature wit and uncanny perception, proving yet again why he was touted by The New York Times Book Review as the “heir to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.”
About the Author
Robert Cohen is the author of three previous novels, The Organ Builder, The Here and Now, and Inspired Sleep, and a collection of short stories. Winner of a Lila Atcheston Wallace -Reader's Digest Writers Award, the Ribalow Prize, The Pushcart Prize, and a Whiting Award, he has published short fiction in a variety of publications -- including Harpers, GQ, The Paris Review and Ploughshares. He has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Harvard University, and Middlebury College. He lives in Vermont.
How did you come to write this novel? Was there an idea or experience that inspired you?
I was playing around with the beginnings of a novel, not really focused on anything in particular, when a dear friend of mine got cancer and died. This is not exactly a unique occurrence, of course, but it felt that way to me at the time; it took me at once very far away from the novel, from all novels, and sent me back in. A line from Walker Percy kept running through my head: "There's no re-entry from the orbit of transcendence." I began to test that out.
Obvious question, but with whom do you identify most, Teddy or Oren?
When I began the book I was in my early mid-forties, so the mathematics of splitting myself into two people, a thirty year old and a fifty year old, felt pretty natural. Since then I've, uh, tilted a bit in Teddy's direction, so I suppose he has more of my sympathies at the moment. Being a younger man, all dressed up with nowhere to go, seems a relatively cushy and weightless condition, one I'm not even nostalgic for, despite if not because of the fact that I suffered from it for a really long time.
In the first chapter of the book, you write about Teddy’s love for explorers and that he considers himself to be "on the trail of an encoded truth." How would you define the truth Teddy seeks? Is the journey he takes more about escaping something or discovering something?
That's the question, all right.
Speaking of Teddy's journey, why Africa? Did you travel to the places that Teddy did?
I did go to Ethiopia, twice in fact, though for reasons unconnected to this novel, and never to Afar. As for why Africa, and not, say, Bali, or Patagonia, or Iceland, I'm not sure I can answer that. I wanted to put him in an extreme environment, and I'd been reading a lot of Conrad and Waugh; I suppose on some level Africa seemed, for him and for me, the most intimidatingly foreign place imaginable, and also at the same time, in some larger, atavistic species sense, home.
In its starred review of the book, Publishers Weekly wrote, "it is Gail who acts as the novel's fulcrum." Is that an accurate description of Gail's role in the novel? She seems immune to the anxiety and floundering that trouble the men in her life. Was that a conscious choice? What does her character represent?
I don't know that she's immune to anxiety but unlike the men there's less room in her life, in her temperament, to indulge it. In that sense she provides a natural foil, and/or a kind of moving target for the projections of the men around her.
When Oren and his students are discussing Hawthorne, they talk about the "meridian of life," the "middle point." You are, in essence, writing this book at your own "middle point." How would you define the "meridian of life"? Is it a matter of age or experience?
If I could articulate that answer I'd never have had to, never wanted to, write a novel about it. Sometimes it's better for the writer to be just a little bit stupid and clumsy, I think. No answers, just more questions.
Would you describe your writing process? How do you work best? How did writing this novel differ from past novels?
My writing process is like a bad, shaggy-dog joke, a little prank I play on myself, like how slow can you go? In this case, very. No sooner would I finish a chapter then I'd immediately begin revising it. Ditto each page, paragraph, and most of all, each sentence. It was a fiesta of fussiness, of negative capability and narrative indirection. We have one coffee shop in this town and I'd start out every day at the same back table, grumbling to myself, always the same indie-emo music looping through the speakers like Groundhog Day, while around me my more prolific colleagues kept merrily hitting their Send buttons and shooting me concerned looks, like, you're not still on that same project, are you? But I was. In the end it took me over six years, and probably ten drafts, and only in the last two did it become at all wieldy or conceptually coherent. And even now I have my doubts.
As for writing in coffee shops, I never did it before and I won't ever do it again, probably, but I got into a rhythm of sorts and then got superstitious about it, the white noise and music and so on.